An idea that always fascinated me is that of the salon, a Renaissance-era gathering to exchange ideas. The salon has been credited with everything from furthering the arts to advancing new political ideas and elevating the status of women, who facilitated many of the famous salons. By most accounts, salons included a diverse collection of viewpoints, with the goal of fostering discussion of different viewpoints in a respectful and intellectually open manner.
The modern anti-salon
Contrast this with most spheres of intellectual exchange in the modern era. Professionally, we attend narrowly focused conferences built around our job role, a particular piece of software, or a narrow industrial focus. If you're a mid-market CIO in the fish products industry running Microsoft ERP, there's probably a conference for those exactly like you. Similarly, outside work we're surrounded by narrowly-focused interest groups tied to everything from our hobbies to our political views.
Many of these groups can be interesting in that they allow us to deeply explore a topic, or learn the latest innovations and trends in the area. However, they also tend to serve as an echo chamber. Surround yourself with only people who share your views, either politically or professionally, and you'll find yourself shocked and possibly unable to deal with other people who have a different perspective.
How a salon can help in IT
While thinking about salons may conjure up images of powdered wigs and stuffy discourse, I believe there's still room for a similar concept, both in the professional and personal spheres.
On the professional side, the critical element of the salon remains the same: a diverse collection of viewpoints and experience. This can be relatively simple even within your own company. Gather two to five people from different parts of the company and at different levels within the company. Someone in marketing may have a different perception of where the industry is headed, while a junior analyst may see some disruptive technology in the consumer space that plays into the decision.
On the personal side, ask friends with different backgrounds and different political viewpoints if they'd be interested in a discussion over dinner or drinks. Communicate a topic a day or two before the discussion — it could be a reasonably "safe" current event, or an issue as profound as religion or the meaning of life. Start the discussion portion of the evening with a few basic ground rules, which should at least include assurances that all views should be aired and argued respectfully, and that no one's comments will leave the group. Should discussion stall, argue the opposing viewpoint to your own, or discuss the various sides of an issue on which no one in the group has taken a position.
The lines between traditional business units have been blurring. IT is no longer the sole purview of the corporate IT department, and now everyone that's used the internet has thoughts on the impact and direction of technology. Similarly, marketing has permeated everything from IT to the consumer consciousness.
These outside perspectives will help ground your more narrowly-focused content knowledge in the broader industry and even society at large. You'll also gain a perspective of how your views and experience fit with an evolving society, and how you can adapt and modify those views as both change.
Not to sound trite, but perhaps the largest benefit to come from a modern equivalent of the salon is that you'll be a more well-rounded and knowledgeable human being.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.